Boone: '21 Yanks are 'championship caliber'

February 17th, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. -- The official report date for Yankees pitchers and catchers had a different look on Wednesday, with players offering waves and greetings behind masks as they filtered through the halls of George M. Steinbrenner Field. To manager Aaron Boone, the goal remains the same: win the World Series.

"Talk is always cheap at this point, but I really liked the winter that we've had," Boone said. "Some of the additions we've made, I think are going to be impactful. The makeup of this team is of championship caliber. That's what we're here to try and accomplish. Hopefully this is the year we get to the top of that mountain."

Yankees pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout on Thursday at the club's Minor League complex, with position players scheduled to report on Monday. The first full-squad workout will take place on Tuesday, and the Yanks' first exhibition game is Feb. 28 against the Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field.

Here are five highlights from Boone's first news conference of camp:

1) is the starting left fielder
Frazier has had to fight for a role in each of his previous camps with the Yankees, which was at times an uphill battle. Each year, Frazier's opportunities came from injuries to other players. That will not be the case this spring, as Boone said that he envisions the 26-year-old Frazier serving as New York's Opening Day left fielder.

"Clint has come a long way in every aspect of his game," Boone said. "He certainly earned his place last year when nothing was given to him. He had to earn everything. Really, the last couple of years he's been a contributor, going back to the first year I was here [in 2018]. Last year, I think he really proved that he was ready to grab an everyday role on this team."

Frazier slashed .267/.394/.511 (149 OPS+) with eight homers and 26 RBIs in 39 games last season, earning recognition as a finalist for an American League Gold Glove Award. and are expected to comprise the rest of the starting outfield, with serving as the regular designated hitter.

2) is in a good place
Last season was a year that Sánchez would like to wipe from the slate, having slashed .147/.253/.365 (69 OPS+) with 10 homers and 24 RBIs in 49 games before losing starts to backup catcher in the postseason. Boone said that he is ready to give Sánchez an opportunity to prove that performance was a fluke.

"I talked to Gary this morning. He looks good; I'm excited about where he's at," Boone said. "I feel like we've had some really good conversations and put some really good things in place that will hopefully allow him to continue to grow and really thrive. I think we've demonstrated with our actions that we believe in him. We feel like he can be a game changer."

Boone said that he is not locked into having Higashioka serve as a personal catcher for ace right-hander Gerrit Cole, though Cole and Higashioka worked well together down the stretch last year. Veteran catcher , a non-roster invitee, is also expected to see playing time when games begin.

3) Big arms at the top
Boone loves the potential of his rotation, which projects to feature proven big leaguers like and behind Cole. Yet the manager acknowledges the risk involved, considering that Kluber pitched one inning last season while Taillon didn't pitch at all while recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2019. Expect to see the Bombers monitor workloads cautiously coming off a year when no pitcher threw as much as they'd have liked.

"The starting pitching candidates that we have, I feel like are all capable of being championship-caliber contributors to varying degrees," Boone said. "A lot of it comes with question marks as well. We'll make sure we do everything to help those guys reach their peak, and that's going to be a little bit different for each one of those guys."

is expected to be in the starting five, while and are among the leading candidates to crack the rotation's back end. Other candidates include Nick Nelson, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt, Luis Medina and non-roster invitee Jhoulys Chacin, some of whom could also contend for bullpen roles.

4) End of the Gardy party?
was the Yankees' longest-tenured player when the 2020 season ended, having debuted with the club in '08. The 37-year-old outfielder has made little secret of his desire to play his entire career in pinstripes, but he remains a free agent less than two weeks from the Bombers' first exhibition game.

"I have not spoken to Brett probably in the last several weeks," Boone said. "You never know what can happen or transpire, but we'll see. Obviously he's been a great Yankee, but we'll just see how things unfold here."

Boone mentioned that he believes the Yankees have compiled good outfield depth with Greg Allen, Jay Bruce, Derek Dietrich and Mike Tauchman all in consideration for roster spots. Gardner has said that he intends to play in 2021 and is thought to be considering opportunities with other clubs.

5) Give it another go
When the Yankees' decision-makers assembled virtually in the wake of their AL Division Series loss to the Rays, most believed that the team they had in 2020 was strong enough to go all the way. They hadn't caught the necessary breaks in a strange 60-game season, but general manager Brian Cashman believed running most of the same group back out would yield success.

As such, New York's Opening Day lineup could be comprised completely of players who were on the 2020 club, with a new contract for second baseman DJ LeMahieu having been the club's most significant move of the offseason.

"When I look at the last several World [Series] champions, I know how close we are," Boone said. "I think it's important to understand where we need to continue to get better, to put ourselves in the best possible position to kick the door in and ultimately get there. There's things that happen in the playoffs that sometimes it's about bouncing the right way or being hot and getting that big hit. I certainly believe we're on the short list of teams capable of winning a championship."